Overcoming organizational inertia on the road to openness

Management alone can't drive open culture change

Creating flexible, decentralized organizations isn't easy. It requires work from everyone—not just managers.

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Recently an article about the ways that profound social and cultural shifts are forcing a reorganization of the climate justice movement circulated. It contains a bit of criticism against the "Big Greens"—global non-profits like Greenpeace.

Those global non-profits, author Kevin Buckland argues, don't always resemble the empowered organizations they champion elsewhere:

Can one truly advocate for external disobedience while internally replicating those same power structures that are to be disobeyed? Can any type of organization coherently advocate for disobedience against decision-makers, yet expect unwavering obedience towards their own hierarchical and unaccountable internal decision-making structures?

An organization's structure certainly does empower or disempower staff—and that structure, in turn, does affect the organization's external relations (as Buckland notes: "The structures through which groups organize give body to their politics").

Working with Greenpeace International for the last couple of years, I've seen how distributed leadership develops. A few years ago, upper management realized that the organization had become too hierarchical, too bureaucratic. They set out to change that, even hiring people (ahem) from the open community to help them streamline attempts to push back against the power structures that had grown quite organically over the years.

In short, the senior management team at Greenpeace wanted to give up power, thinking that distributing it amongst the global staff was a better form of governance for the organization with a mission for a more green and peaceful world.

But the situation is more complex than Buckland might realize.

Decentralization and inertia

As Greenpeace leadership moves toward greater decentralization as part of its transformation to a more open organization, accountability has taken a hit. It seems that people are unsure of who is "allowed" to make decisions, and thus follow old and outdated practices or avoid decision making altogether. In the case of the former, innovation continues to be stymied by bureaucracy. In the wake of the transition, requests get lost and people stay confused. And avoiding decisions leads to a never-ending conversation, instead of releasing things to the world with a fail forward approach and attitude. This doesn't seem to be due to management teams disempowering people, but rather confusion around the transition itself.

It would seem that moving towards openness is quite scary, especially for folks who may have been reprimanded for acting openly in the past.

It would seem that moving towards openness is quite scary, especially for folks who may have been reprimanded for acting openly in the past—for offering unsolicited feedback, for brazenly making mistakes, for speaking their criticisms directly, and for other behaviors open advocates take for granted. They still bear the scar tissue of prior reproachments, and it might make them reluctant participants. Sharing openly feels like a kind of limelight. People can be afraid to share too early, and they worry about publicly taking responsibility for their own ideas.

It would seem that upper management is, indeed, eager to break the systems of power and hierarchy within this "Big Green," but a failure of collective challenge and disobedience makes it difficult. If one staff member stands up, others are too afraid to stand with them, and either that person stands alone. Or they sit back down.

The problem with labels

The problem is that we have all been conditioned to understand "business" and the atmosphere of "work." We've been taught something about "professionalism" and the thing we've been taught includes the conceptual understanding of a typical hierarchy. Even if the leadership team at Greenpeace shouts from the rooftops "We want you to take control!" it doesn't mean that flexible and decentralized leadership models and behaviors are clear to the global staff.

At the root of that problem is the nature of labels. Labels and categorization serve an important function in understanding. They allow us to neatly package and group things, which helps our brains remember more. The problem is that labels and categories have a tendency to obscure the complexity of what is being labeled, and people understand labels differently—particularly those labels referring to humans. The "senior management team" is a label that says something about power and position, but it doesn't say much about the individuals who make up that team.

Labels and categories do not encapsulate the complexity of humans.

Yet people still see "senior management team" and hear opinion as mandate, making them afraid to push back on things they see as ill-advised.

It would seem that targeted learning around how a non-hierarchical governance model practically works in a global organisation is required. This, in and of itself, is a learning expedition that needs to be highly personal. We have to be retrained to fail forward and without fear. We have to learn to criticize constructively, even our bosses. We also have to rethink things like typical management activities, job security and career pathways. Above all, we have to feel safe inside our organizations and that requires trust.

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About the author

Laura Hilliger - Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for Opensource.com, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a...